Strangers in a Strange Land

Underpaid, under appreciated--going nowhere: The buzz about the plight of postdocs in the United States flatters neither the scholars nor the institutions that employ them.1,2 In response, many research institutions are building postdoc offices and associations to give postdocs a stronger voice, but they have perhaps progressed too slowly for these workers, who have increasingly become the lifeblood of scientific discovery. Foreign nationals represent about half the postdocs in the United States

Oct 1, 2001
Brendan Maher
Underpaid, under appreciated--going nowhere: The buzz about the plight of postdocs in the United States flatters neither the scholars nor the institutions that employ them.1,2 In response, many research institutions are building postdoc offices and associations to give postdocs a stronger voice, but they have perhaps progressed too slowly for these workers, who have increasingly become the lifeblood of scientific discovery. Foreign nationals represent about half the postdocs in the United States, according to a 2000 report on the postdoctoral experience by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences. Whether on temporary visas or here to stay, foreign postdocs often confront a different set of challenges than do their US counterparts.


Courtesy of Michael Teitelbaum

Michael Teitelbaum

One-third of the institutions surveyed by COSEPUP have no office to assist foreign nationals with visas, taxes, Social Security, housing, or language skills. Even in schools with special postdoc programs, officials lose track of their foreign postdocs' needs. While their problems often are not unique, they can be magnified through the scope of an unfamiliar culture. The COSEPUP study reports anecdotal evidence that foreign-born postdocs are paid less than natives; sometimes foreign female postdocs are not paid at all. "There's no doubt that foreign postdocs are very vulnerable," says Michael Teitelbaum, program director at Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funded the Postdoc Network, a Web-based community connecting postdoctoral associations across the country. Maxine Singer, COSEPUP chair and president of Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C., echoes that sentiment, "A lot of the institutions don't have particular assigned staff to help with their needs, and they fall through the cracks."

Nese Akis, a Turkish citizen who has worked for nearly five years on the medical school faculty of University of Pennsylvania and at the Wistar Institute says Penn's attempts to help have fallen short. "I do not think [the] office for postdoctoral programs can be considered helping foreign-born scientists to adjust to their new environment," she says. Instead of asking foreign postdocs what's wrong in their lives, administrators should ask what's wrong in the laboratories, Akis suggests. She argues that administrators should especially ask about language and communication problems.

Indeed, such problems have been closely linked with poor career outcomes. Communication difficulties can stagnate science careers, according to Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean for biomedical research, education, and training at Vanderbilt University. Like any US trainee, foreign postdocs depend on positive references from their mentors; but they have fewer options for employment should that relationship sour.

"Very often one individual may have the ability to ruin a career," comments Mary Anne Timmins, associate director of biomedical postdoctoral programs at Penn. "If you don't get a recommendation from a leader in the field ... [postdocs] have the perception that this can ruin their career. Sometimes they are right."

Releasing the Postdoc Lock

Penn's Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs office--like many emerging in the United States--was set up to help postdocs solve such problems, and the office is preparing a mentor manual to help tenured staff manage relationships, Timmins says. She denies Akis' criticisms of the program, saying the office has an open-door policy, giving postdocs direct access to her and her colleagues. A separate biomedical postdoctorate council gives these trainees direct input in the design of the programs.

Vanderbilt also recently established an office of postdoctoral affairs, which tracks the university's 400 postdocs before and after their training. Often the office focuses on those stymied by cultural misunderstandings or language difficulties. "We are trying to look at ways to expose this international subset to communication skills," explains Chalkley. Sometimes the urge to remain in the United States takes precedent over the desire to develop communication skills, he adds.

When Chandradhar Dwivedi began his postdoc at Vanderbilt University in 1973, he intended to return to India for a faculty position after completing his training. "But, the '70s were pretty bad for India," says Dwivedi, now professor of pharmaceutical sciences at South Dakota State. "I'll be pretty honest; I was not able to find a position back there." While his goals had changed, his mentor's views did not. Dwivedi says he faced separate standards and expectations from his American colleagues. "The other postdocs were not working as hard as I was doing and didn't have as many publications as I had, but they were being placed in faculty positions and industry positions much before I [was]. And, when I asked my mentor, he told me, 'You came here to get experience, and now it's time for you to go.'" The postdoc had trouble getting a recommendation and had to seek a new position and US citizenship on his own. Dwivedi has since made peace with his former adviser, and looks back gratefully at lessons learned. "It made me independent--able to get by without his help."

Liberal immigration laws of the 1970s facilitated Dwivedi's advancement, but laws have changed. Most foreign postdocs come to the United States on a J1 training visa and are required to return to their own countries after they complete their training, according to Tammy Fox-Isicoff, Miami immigration attorney and president of the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. J1 postdocs have to obtain a waiver from their program sponsors before they can even move from one university to another; obtaining a H1 temporary worker visa requires both a sponsor recommendation and a waiver from the postdocs' home countries. "They can't easily change their status," she says.

The lack of portability among J1 visa holders could make some more beholden to their principal investigators, Fox-Isicoff acknowledges, though she notes that she has not witnessed such inequity. If employment is terminated, the postdoc (and family) must return to the home country within 30 days. The spouses of these postdocs--very often women on a J2 visa for the families of trainees--will work at the lab without pay just to have something to do, because the law prohibits them from earning a salary.

Culture Clashes Isolate Scholars

Some problems for foreign postdocs--long hours, low pay, and sparse benefits--are not unique. "There are some communication and cultural adjustments, but their specific needs are the same as most people's," Timmins says. When one's status in this country depends on performance or on the perceptions of a principal investigator, situations can seem inescapable, however. "To be a foreigner in another country ... there is a basic stress level that you have," Akis says. "It is not possible to skip this feeling."

Often even assistance programs fail to free postdocs from their subservience. "In the countries they come from, quite often it may not be culturally acceptable to speak badly about one's boss," Singer says.

Courtesy of Kimberly Paul

Kimberly Paul

Because in some foreign postdocs' countries long hours and low pay are the norm, they may not even recognize what US workers may define as abuse. "The real problem is not so much the hierarchy of whom to go to if you have a problem, but for foreign postdocs to realize that they are being mistreated in the first place," says Kimberly Paul, president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association.

Distinguishing abuse from acceptable US behavior is not always simple. "There are legitimate concerns, and there are concerns arising from the fact that they are not familiar with the American way of doing things," Singer adds.

Many foreign postdocs say they are happy in their American labs; some say a strong support system among postdocs--both foreign and native--provides a big help. Wolfram Brune, a German postdoc working in a virology lab at Princeton University, credits an E-mail list for German postdocs for walking him through US bureaucracy.

Patrizia Fanara, an Italian biochemistry postdoc working at Emory University, explains, "I can learn a lot more interacting with Americans as opposed to isolating myself with only foreign students." Foreign postdocs can also contribute to US brain resources rather than simply fill the demand for cheap lab labor. "There are a lot of pluses, too, when you meet with people from different backgrounds," Dwivedi says. "I learn something new every day."

A follow-up study by COSEPUP may be in the works to see how far research institutions have come, according to Singer. But, the problems faced by foreign postdocs are not likely to go away. "The problems will arise," Singer says. "I don't think there's any way to do away with it. What's necessary is that we find ways to deal with them. And that has to come from within the institution."

Brendan A. Maher can be contacted at bmaher@the-scientist.com;
Additional reporting provided by Hal Cohen and Paula Park.
References
1. J. Lee, "Postdoc trail: Long and filled with pitfalls," The New York Times, Tuesday, Aug. 21,2001, Page F3.

2. C. Findlay, ed., "Enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers: A guide for postdoctoral scholars, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies," Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, 2000.